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Professor Richard Francis, Bath Spa University
15 February 2011
Richard Francis gave a talk exploring the cross-fertilisation of ideas that took place between a utopian experiment at Ham Common in surrey and the famous Fruitlands community in Massachusetts, founded by Bronson Alcott, father of the much-loved American author, Louisa May Alcott.
Alcott set up an experimental school for young children in Boston in the mid-1830s. Two books were published detailing his classroom methods, and these came to the attention of a London educationalist and philosopher called James Pierrepont Greaves. Greaves decided to encourage his group of followers to set up a school in Ham Common to be called Alcott House, in the American’s honour.
In the meantime, Bronson Alcott’s own school had failed, and in 1842 his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson funded him to go to England to meet his admirers there. Greaves died just before Alcott arrived, but he went to Ham and discovered that the school named after him was in the process of becoming a community as well.
Alcott persuaded two of the Greavesian group, Charles Lane and Henry Gardiner Wright, that America would provide more fertile (and cheaper) soil for a social experiment, and that autumn the two men (plus Lane’s 11-year-old son) travelled with him to New England and joined the Alcott family, including the four ‘little women’, in tiny Concordia Cottage, Concord.
Back in England, the Ham community-cum-school was being led by Charles Lane’s close friend, William Oldham. Both enterprises ran in parallel, insisting on a strictly vegan diet (more than a century before the word ‘vegan’ was even invented), sexual abstinence and general austerity, in the hopes of freeing humankind from original sin, and re-establishing the Garden of Eden.
In America Henry Wright soon found the diet too difficult and he left the Alcott cottage to form an unconventional relationship with a divorced New England reformer called Mrs Gove. Nevertheless, early in 1843 the utopians at Ham named their community the Concordium in honour of their New England counterparts.
By the spring it was becoming clear that Concordia Cottage was simply too small, and Lane used his savings (despite his Greavesian idealism he had been a successful businessman) to buy a farm near Harvard Village in central Massachusetts. He and Alcott called the property Fruitlands, and with their families and a handful of followers they moved on to the site in June 1843.
Internecine conflict and inefficient farming (they wouldn’t use animals or even manure the soil) brought the community to an end within six months of the move. In due course Lane returned to England, and took up residence at the Concordium in Ham where he lived ‘in sin’ with a ‘managing sister’ there and in due course fathered five more children. This community outlived its more famous American offshoot by a number of years. Oldham attributed its final collapse in 1849 to the fact that all its leaders (himself included) were too weak and had failed to obey Greaves’s embargo on sex.
These ill-fated enterprises nevertheless helped to lead the way towards our contemporary concerns with ecology and environmentalism. Richard Francis’s book, Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia is published by Yale University Press in hardback at £25 and a paperback edition will be issued in November 2011.
Richard Francis 2011